A number of news services have report on the Connecticut legislature voting to "exonerate" witch convictions from the 17th century. For example, this article from wtnh.com news:

With distant family members looking on, Connecticut senators voted Thursday to absolve the 12 women and men convicted of witchcraft — 11 of whom were executed — more than 370 years ago and apologize for the “miscarriage of justice” that occurred over a dark 15-year-period of the state’s colonial history.

The Senate voted 33-1 in favor of a resolution that officially proclaimed their innocence. ... Some of the descendants recently learned through genealogy testing that they were related to the accused witches and have since lobbied the state’s General Assembly to officially clear their names.

I'm not familiar with the Connecticut constitution, but it seems that most states in the United States tend to follow the general format of the U.S. Consitution.

What part of the Connecticut constitution allows the legislature to do this? That would seem to violate separation of powers for the legislature to void a court decision. I can understand a pardon from the governor, since that tends to be an enumerated power. But the legislature?

Article XVIII of the Connecticut constitution mentions the separation of powers:

The powers of government shall be divided into three distinct departments, and each of them confided to a separate magistracy....

And article FIVE section 1 says that "The powers and jurisdiction of these courts shall be defined by law." But from my lay person understanding, allowing the legislature to define the "powers and jurisdiction" of the courts wouldn't allow the legislature to grant the power to themselves.

It looks like the Connecticut constitution doesn't enumerate legislative powers the way the U.S. Constitution does. And that sort of makes sense since "police powers" are granted to the states, and their legislatures can pretty much do anything that they want, as long as it isn't specifically prohibited by the state or U.S. Constitution.

But since Article FIVE says specifically that "powers of government shall be divided..." [emphasis added], it seems to my lay-person reasoning that the legislature couldn't intrude into court decision unless specifically authorized elsewhere in the Connecticut constitution.

The news article linked above mentions "Because it’s a resolution, it does not require the governor’s signature." Does that mean it's all for show? That it doesn't truly exonerate the victims?

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    I’m still trying to find it in the State Constitution, but not all states give that power to the Governor. Jun 26 at 17:05
  • @suchiuomizu: See here: "The authority to grant pardons for any crime... is the exclusive province of the Board of Pardons; the governor's only authority in this area is to grant temporary reprieves after conviction for any offense, other than impeachment, until the next session of the General Assembly (Ct. Constit. Art IV § 13) ... The crown generally delegated the power to a colonial governor, but in Connecticut, it was vested in the General Assembly where it remained until creation of the Board of Pardons in 1883." Jun 26 at 17:56
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    Both the federal and almost all state legislature can do so. In those cases, it is called legislative amnesty.
    – ohwilleke
    Jun 26 at 18:27
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    "Does that mean it's all for show?" Were any of the current descendants negatively affected by this in any sort of meaningful way prior to this "exoneration"? I highly doubt it, therefore it would appear to be a PR stunt with no practical outcome. Jun 26 at 19:07

1 Answer 1


The resolution in Connecticut is a statement that has been agreed by the state's legislature, but is not a law. If it were, it would indeed need to be signed by the Governor, by virtue of Article 4, Section 15 of the state Constitution. It exonerates the victims insofar as it expresses the current legislature's disapproval of the witchcraft trials of the past, and apologizes to living relatives. All of the victims are long dead, whether they were executed by the state or not, so even if this were a legally-effective pardon, it would have no other practical consequences.

That said, a state legislature could enact pardons for named individuals, or a class of people. It would be unlawful to criminalize a named person (that's a "bill of attainder") or to punish someone for an act that wasn't a crime at the time (an "ex post facto law"). But the opposite, which reduces or eliminates a punishment, is not covered by the federal or state constitutional bans on such laws. That was explained by Samuel Chase in Calder v Bull, 3 U.S. 386, a Supreme Court decision of 1798 dealing with actions of the Connecticut legislature ordering a retrial in a probate case (with my emphasis):

Every law that takes away or impairs rights vested agreeably to existing laws is retrospective, and is generally unjust and may be oppressive, and it is a good general rule that a law should have no retrospect; but there are cases in which laws may justly, and for the benefit of the community and also of individuals, relate to a time antecedent to their commencement, as statutes of oblivion or of pardon. They are certainly retrospective, and literally both concerning and after the facts committed. But I do not consider any law ex post facto within the prohibition that mollifies the rigor of the criminal law, but only those that create or aggravate the crime or increase the punishment or change the rules of evidence for the purpose of conviction. Every law that is to have an operation before the making thereof, as to commence at an antecedent time or to save time from the statute of limitations or to excuse acts which were unlawful, and before committed, and the like, is retrospective. But such laws may be proper or necessary, as the case may be. There is a great and apparent difference between making an unlawful act lawful and the making an innocent action criminal and punishing it as a crime.

At the time, Connecticut's system for pardons made it so that an offender would always have to petition the legislature to pass a bill to that specific effect. That model predated the U.S. Constitution, and continued to operate after its ratification. The Governor only had the power to grant temporary reprieves, when the legislature was out of session - in fact, he still does (Article 4, Section 13 of the Constitution of Connecticut). Presently, the state has instituted a permanent system of a Board of Pardons and Paroles, but in principle they could enact some other model. The contemporaneous A System of the Laws of the State of Connecticut by Zephaniah Smith (1795) says in Book 5, Chapter 26:

The power of granting pardon to criminals sentenced to death, or to any other punishment, is vested by law in the legislature.

This carries forward a practice from the British legislatures, which also often passed acts to pardon or indemnify certain offenders. There was therefore quite a long history for Chase to allude to, even though he was writing not long after the revolution, in terms of this being part of the standard panoply of things a state legislature can generally do.

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    Thank you @alexg. I think my biggest mistake was thinking that a pardon was intruding into the sphere of influence of the courts. Based on your answer and the comments from ohwilleke and Michael Seifert, I'm realizing that courts convict or acquit (or analogous actions for civil cases), but pardons, per se, have traditionally been seen as a power outside the judicial branch. And since the Connecticut constitution doesn't list it as a power of the executive (except for the short-term exception you listed) then by default it would be a legislative power. Jun 26 at 21:17

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